Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-11-03.
Although a lighthouse has marked Chatham as early as 1808, the current cast-iron Chatham Lighthouse dates to 1877 and was once one of a pair of iron towers to mark the location. The waters off of Cape Cod were bustling with maritime traffic in the 1800s, and due to the dangerous currents and frequent shoals, many vessels would never make it past the perilous Cape.
There was already a lighthouse on the island of Cape Cod to guide vessels. The Highland Lighthouse was established in 1797 in the town of Truro some 30 miles to the north; however, this did little for traffic plying the waters of the southern cape or trying to cross the Chatham Bar.
Congress, in an effort to make passage of Cape Cod safer for maritime traffic, appropriated $5,000 for a second lighthouse on April 21, 1806. The location high atop of bluff called James's Head was selected and 12 acres of land were acquired. In order to differentiate the newly proposed Chatham Lighthouse from the Highland Lighthouse to the north, the Lighthouse Board recommended twin lighthouses.
Although the contractor planned to construct the twin lighthouses out of stone, however due to the scarcity of stone on Cape Cod, the plan was changed. Instead, two octagonal wooden towers standing 40-feet tall were erected on moveable wooden skids about 70 feet apart and topped off by iron lanterns. The lanterns were outfitted with spider-style lamps suspended from iron chains. Also constructed at that time was a 17 by 26 foot, one-story three-room keeper's dwelling. Before the station was completed, a second appropriation of $2,000 was necessary in 1808.
Lt. Edward W. Carpender of the U.S. Navy was tasked with reporting on many of the lighthouses, and in 1838 he assessed the Chatham station. He commented that the main purpose of the Chatham Lights was to guide vessels across the Chatham Bar which had since filled in. The lighthouses still served a purpose warning vessels away from the coast and to guide past the dangerous Pollock Rip Shoal, however, he recommended that the same function could be done with a single lighthouse displaying a fixed red light.
1830 Chatham Lighthouses (Courtesy Coast Guard)
Other comments from the report stated that the keeper at the time had done little to maintain the lights. The report stated that when Lieutenant Carpender visited the station late in the afternoon, many of the daily chores were not completed. "...the reflectors, apparently, not having been burnished for a length of time; the glass very smoked, and the lamps neither filled nor trimmed."
He went on to report that the both the towers and dwelling were in poor condition, that it was "a danger to ascend them in windy weather." He went on to recommend the demolition and rebuilding of the station.
The dwelling here is very much like that at Scituate, but smaller, and less commodious. Of course, it will be no sacrifice to demolish both dwelling and towers, and erect an entirely new establishment of brick or stone. I recommend the site of the southernmost of the present towers for the proposed one, and the number of lamps (six) now in that tower for the light. The saving in oil, &c., will be $215.25 a year, a sum sufficient to defray the expense of these improvements in the course of not many years.
Requests were made by Lighthouse Board during the 1839 and 1840 sessions of Congress, but were not honored. However, by 1841, records report that the Lighthouse Board used $6,750 out of the general annual appropriation to replace the station.
Two new brick towers, standing 30 feet tall and fitted with fourteen-inch reflectors were erected during the summer of 1841 by contractor Winslow Lewis. A new brick keeper's dwelling, also constructed at that time was connected to each tower via a covered walkway.
Winslow Lewis, who was not an engineer by trade, knew very little about proper construction techniques, and it showed in the quality of his work. Winslow Lewis's nephew, I.W.P. Lewis, a civil engineer, would survey many of the lighthouses of Cape Cod, and would be highly critical of his uncle's work.
The report of I.W.P. Lewis in 1842 listed many deficiencies. For the towers, the list included bad lime mortar, no foundation (the towers were built on sand), and soapstone roofs which were leaky. For the dwelling, he listed many of the same problems: bad lime mortar, leaky roof, and lack of foundation. Rats were able to burrow through that sand to access the cellar which had become infested.
Despite the shoddy workmanship, the towers remained in use for several decades. Like most lighthouses in the 1850s, the Chatham Lighthouses were upgraded to the more efficient Fresnel lenses in 1857. Each tower was outfitted with a fourth-order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light.
The twin lighthouses of Chatham were listed as 228 feet from the edge of the bluff in 1870. After a gale in November of that year, the ocean broke through the outer beach and the pace of erosion quickened. Captain Josiah Hardy, principal keeper from 1872 to 1897, kept logs noting the pace of erosion. He reported that between 1874 and 1877, 95 feet of the bluff was lost.
Due to the rapid rate of erosion, the Lighthouse Board moved quickly to establish a new station further from the bluff. By the late 1870s, the Lighthouse Board had adopted iron as its primary building material. Two 48-foot cast-iron towers were erected and lined with brick. To provide adequate living quarters for the keepers and their families, double one-and-a-half-story, wood-framed dwellings were constructed.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1877 had the following entry:
92. 93. Chatham, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts - A new, double, frame, one-and-a-half-story dwelling and two cast-iron towers were erected at this station during the year.
By July 31, 1877, the old south tower of the Chatham station was a mere 64 feet from the bluff. The Fresnel lenses were moved from the old towers to the new ones on September 6 and lit for the first time later that night. A little over a year later, the old south tower was 26 feet from the edge, and by September 30, 1879, a mere 27 inches. It would topple over the bluff on December 15 of that year. By May of 1881, the rest of the 1841 station would succumb and plummet to the beach below.
In 1893, a brick oil house was added to the station. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following entry:
106. 107. Chatham, west side of Chatham Harbor, Massachusetts - A brick oil house, 9 feet 4 inches by 11 feet, was built. Some repairs were made.
Starting in the early 1900s, the Lighthouse Board began its cost cutting measures by reducing the number of "twin lights." Ten miles to the north stood the last remaining "sister" of the Three Sisters Lighthouse. In 1923, it was deemed that two lighthouses at Chatham were unnecessary and at the same, the remaining "sister" in Eastham was in poor condition.
To replace the aging "sister", the Lighthouse Board had decided that the north tower of the twin lights at Chatham would be moved to Nauset. Because it was constructed of cast-iron, disassembly was as simple as unbolting the plates and transporting them to Eastham. Once on location, it was reassembled upon a concrete pad to ensure its stability and lined with yellow brick. It became known as the Nauset Lighthouse or Nauset Beach Lighthouse.
Prior to the Coast Guard supplying the station with electricity in 1939, the light was fueled by kerosene since 1882. The application of electricity increased the light's output from 300,000 to 800,000 candlepower.
With the advent of World War II, the Chatham Lighthouse was one of the few lights that remained active. Eleven Coast Guard women, commonly known as SPARS were stationed at the light and were given a training class on LORAN (long-range aid to navigation). Upon completion of the training, they operated the new LORAN technology.
New technology replaced the aging Fresnel lens in 1969. A modern aerobeacon producing 2.8-million-candlepower was installed. However, before installation could take place, a new, larger lantern needed to be installed on the tower. The old lantern and Fresnel lens were put on display on the grounds of the Chatham Historical Society's Atwood House Museum in 1974.
The lighthouse was automated in 1982, and the station remains an active Coast Guard base. The lights were once again upgraded in 1993, when the lantern was temporarily removed so that a new DCB-224 aerobeacons could be installed.
The town of Chatham has employed many erosion control measures which have slowed the rate of erosion. However, there will no doubt come a time again that the tower will have to be moved, or will be sacrificed to the ocean.
Directions: From Route 28 (Main Street) in Chatham, follow this road to the point where Route 28 turns north and changes names to Old Harbor Road. At this point, you will continue heading east on Main Street for about a mile. At this point, you will see the Chatham Lighthouse on your right.
Access: The station is an active Coast Guard base. Grounds and tower open during guided tours.View more Chatham Lighthouse pictures